by Harold Friend
Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young Award for the third time in 1966. He won 27 games for a Los Angeles team that was offensively challenged, and compiled a 1.90 ERA+, which was the best of his career. Koufax was at his peak.
Los Angeles, led by Koufax and Don Drysdale, won the pennant, but the underdog Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. It was a tremendous upset that only Frank Robinson and Orioles' manager Hank Bauer thought could happen.
A Shocking Announcement
On Nov. 18, 30-year-old Sandy Koufax announced his retirement, fearing that if he continued pitching, he would damage his arthritic left arm permanently. Koufax said that the pain in his left elbow, which he first felt in 1963, was getting so bad that he had to have the left sleeves of his coats shortened. He didn't want to continue taking pills, shots, and therapeutic treatments.
"A few too many shots and a few too many pills. I could be doing this a year too soon, but that's the way it is. I don't want to take a chance of completely disabling myself and losing the use of my left arm. It didn't get any better last year and it is worse this fall than last fall. I have been dropping things with my left hand and learning to use my right"
The baseball world was shaken, despite the fact that many suspected Koufax might retire prematurely.
The Best I Ever Saw
Chicago Cubs' manager Leo Durocher, who had led the New York Giants to pennants in 1951 and 1954, came right to the point. "Koufax is the best pitcher I've ever seen."
Durocher had been Babe Ruth's teammate in 1928. He had seen Walter Johnson, Bob Grove, Dizzy Dean, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Bob Feller, and Carl Hubbell. Leo wasn't just being nice, especially since Leo was hardly ever nice.
Dick O'Connell, the vice president and general manager of the Boston Red Sox, said "Certainly, Sandy Koufax has to rank with the great pitchers in the history of the game."
The Most Talent
Durocher's statement is significant. Sandy Koufax had more talent than any pitcher Leo had ever seen. Other pitchers had much better careers, but none was a great as Koufax.
Warren Spahn is an excellent example. Spahn won 363 games, which is unmatched by any left hander. He missed three seasons defending his country during World War II, and didn't get his first win until 1946, when he was 25-years old.
Spahn had an excellent fast ball and later developed a screwball. His philosophy was simple. "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
Koufax' lifetime totals in wins, games, games started, complete games, and strikeouts pale in comparison to those of Spahn, but Durocher was not speaking about longevity.
Koufax was more likely to shut out an opponent. Spahn started 665 games. Koufax started 314. Spahn pitched 63 shut outs. Koufax pitched 40.
A strikeout is the least productive out. Spahn struck out 2,583 batters in 5,243 and two-thirds innings, for an average of about 124 strikeouts a season. Koufax struck out 2,396 batters, for an average of about 229 a season, which is incredible.
Baseball's Best Pitcher
In the 1963 Koufax established as baseball's best pitcher. The "experts" made the New York Yankees 6-5 favorites to win the opener at Yankee Stadium. Their rationale was that, despite Koufax' spectacular season, in which he was 25-5, with 306 strikeouts, Whitey Ford had been a World Series competitor since 1950, winning 10 games, while losing 5.
All Koufax did was set a new single game World Series strikeout record by fanning 15 Yankees. Los Angeles won easily, 5-2. The Dodgers won the next two games, and in the fourth game in Los Angeles, Koufax out-dueled Ford, 2-1 to end the Yankees' misery.
Sandy Koufax appeared in four World Series. His ERA is 0.95, his WHIP is 0.825, and he has 61 strikeouts in 57 innings.
One of the least pleasant experiences for a hitter was to step into the batters' box to face Sandy Koufax. He had a great fastball with a lot of movement, but it was his curve ball that made him so difficult to hit. Leo Durocher knew what he was talking about when he said that Koufax was the best pitcher he had ever seen.
One disclaimer is necessary. Leo Durocher passed away in 1991. He never got to see the entire career of the one pitcher who might have been better than even Koufax, a pitcher who averaged 271 strikeouts over a 162 game season, won 303 games, and pitched a perfect game. Would Durocher have ranked Randy Johnson ahead of Koufax?
By The Associated Press. (1966, November 19). Koufax, Dodger Pitching Star, Retires Because of Ailing Arm :Fearing a Permanent Injury to Elbow, Hurler, 30, Stops at Peak of His Career DODGER SOUTHPAW IN PAIN SINCE 1964 Condition Has Worsened Koufax at Peak of Career Despite Arm Ailment. New York Times (1923-Current file),1. Retrieved February 26, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 83650287).
By JOHN DREBINGER. (1963, October 2). Yanks Favored in World Series Opener Today Against Koufax and Dodgers :FORD WILL OPPOSE STRIKEOUT ARTIST 70,000 Expected at Stadium. New York Times (1923-Current file),p. 65. Retrieved February 27, 2010, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 89963306).